Jamie Raskin on Grief and Gratitude

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Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD) speaks to media after a House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol meeting, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Monday, December 19, 2022. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA) (Newscom TagID: sipaphotosfifteen181559.jpg) [Photo via Newscom]
David Mark

Even Rep. Jamie Raskin’s fiercest, Donald Trump-defending political opponents wouldn’t begrudge him missing a few days of work amid chemotherapy treatment for lymphoma.

But the Maryland Democrat, whose House district spans lower Montgomery County from the Potomac River to his home base of Takoma Park, had a perfect attendance record throughout his cancer treatment for House floor votes and as the top Democratic member of the Oversight and Reform Committee. It’s a perch from which Raskin counters attacks against President Joe Biden, reminding the Republican majorities of widespread malfeasance during Trump’s 2017-21 presidency.

Raskin, a member of Temple Sinai, announced in late April the cancer is in remission, capping a five-month treatment regimen. Where side effects like hair loss saw him emerge as an unlikely political fashion icon due to a bandana that was a gift from Steven Van Zandt, of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and “Sopranos” fame.

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The 60-year-old Raskin’s cancer scare was only the latest in a traumatic and searing turn of events in his life over the past two-and-a-half years. Back to the grief around his son Tommy’s suicide on Dec. 31, 2020. Then, experiencing first-hand the terrors of Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob of Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a futile effort to keep the defeated president in office. Raskin was an impeachment manager (prosecutor) in the subsequent Senate trial of Trump, and then a leading member of the January 6 committee that probed the coup attempt.

Throughout it all, Raskin brought indefatigable energy to his public duties. In an interview with Montgomery Magazine, Raskin said that Tommy’s memory and spirit have helped. It’s a cathartic, and ongoing, process that began with the writing of his #1 New York Times bestseller “Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy.”

“I suppose I never felt I had any real choice than to go forward. I felt Tommy with me from the beginning of this dark period,” Raskin said about his beloved late son, a second-year Harvard Law School student and graduate of Montgomery Blair High School and Amherst College.

“In my book, I date the beginning of the darkness to COVID-19, and the plague conditions in the country, and the response to it,” Raskin said about Tommy, who had long battled depression. “Tommy, like many in his generation, was left very isolated and despondent. And everything went south from there.”

The congressman’s memories of Tommy only intensify as Father’s Day approaches, on June 18. Feelings shared by his wife, Sarah Bloom Raskin, who was deputy treasury secretary in former President Barack Obama’s administration and previously a member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, and their two daughters, Hannah and Tabitha.

“Tommy was someone who always was focused on the group and the community, and other people’s experiences,” Raskin said. “I know that he would be happy to know how involved Sarah and I are in the lives of his sisters, and their significant others.”

The congressman’s early grief, and later his cancer battle, came amid increasingly visible roles on Capitol Hill, representing a House district to which he was elected in 2016 when 14-year Democratic incumbent Chris Van Hollen won an open Senate seat. Raskin, drawing on his decades as a law professor and public interest litigator on causes like Washington, D.C., statehood, has emerged as a go-to Democratic Trump critic. And more broadly, Trumpism and what he and others call its toxic stew of populist nationalism.

Raskin’s Oversight Committee role has been energizing amid some very hard times, he said.“My bout with lymphoma underscored for me this fight that we’re in, for democratic values and institutions in the country,” Raskin said.

His committee battles with Republican Chairman James Comer of Kentucky have frequently become televised spectacles, particularly when it comes to the investigation of President Biden’s at-times wayward son, Hunter Biden. Emblematic of it all was Comer’s mid-May admission that he apparently lost track of his informant in an investigation into the Biden family.

“It’s a wild goose chase that is both madcap and fanciful,” Raskin said. “We used to stay up late in the night preparing for these hearings. But now we’re getting more sleep because they’re embarrassing themselves on a daily basis.”

That stands in contrast to the sober nature of the January 6 hearings, which ended up making criminal referrals of Trump and others to the Justice Department, Raskin added.“The committee was completely bipartisan, with a Democratic chair and a Republican vice chair. It was driven by objective fact-finding,” he said.

Despite the partisanship, Raskin said his lymphoma diagnosis had brought out a softer side of even the most ardent Trump-supporting Republicans in Congress. Among them is a fellow cancer survivor, Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, who was diagnosed with and beat back Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“He was constantly texting me and checking on me,” Raskin said.

It’s all part of his two-and-a-half-year saga that could easily double as a novella. But one, at least on the health front, with a happy ending.

It’s a health journey in which Raskin took solace from writer Susan Sontag’s quote, “Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”

Civically, though, a grave threat to American democracy still looms in the form of Trump, as the former president is running again in 2024, Raskin said. As that fight continues there won’t be any question about missed workdays.

“I have a new lease on life,” Raskin said. I felt like I had been gone for five months, which is ironic because I’d been present all along.” ■

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